Hokianga: Hidden secrets

By Paul Rush

A view of the dramatic seascape at the Hokianga Harbour entrance. Photo / Paul Rush
A view of the dramatic seascape at the Hokianga Harbour entrance. Photo / Paul Rush

The light is fading fast as we penetrate deep into the dinosaur forest, led by our guide Tawhiri Riwai.

'Oh mighty Father of the Forest, you have stood for 2000 years, may you continue to stand and prosper.'

A disembodied voice cries out in a greeting that reverberates around the towering flanks of a forest giant in the Waipoua Kauri Forest.

A slab-sided colossus of a tree rises out of the gloom. Te Matua Ngahere has to be seen to be believed, a great wall of timber that seems surreal, like a creation of Weta Workshops.

Later we stand before the Lord of the Forest, Tane Mahuta, feeling dwarfed and humbled by this greatest and noblest of all New Zealand's trees. It is a vision of beauty and perfection that will remain with me forever.

Hurry through a quiet place like the Hokianga Harbour on Northland's west coast and it's easy to miss its hidden treasures.

First impressions may leave you with the feeling that the world has moved on while Old Father Time has stood still here. But stay a few nights and you may be surprised at what you find.

Life ticks along at a quiet pace on the west coast. The locals call it 'Hokianga Time'. It makes a welcome change from the bustling tourist hub of Paihia on the east coast.

Being in the Waipoua Forest at night with 2000-year-old kauri provides a spiritual awakening.

The Hokianga has seen momentous events, beginning with the arrival of Kupe, the first voyager to reach these shores 1000 years ago. He settled here with his whanau for 60 years and then made the courageous decision to return to his ancestral home of Hawaiiki to tell his people about this bountiful land.

Then Cannibal Jack came on the scene. Jackie Marmon, a runaway convict from Australia turned sailor, was shipwrecked off the Hokianga Heads in 1817. One of only three men who survived, he watched dumbfounded as the local Maori warriors killed and ate his two mates.

Jackie later married a fine Maori woman and helped to build the Horeke Tavern and Judge Manning's home. Once he mastered the language he learnt that his survival was due to a simple misunderstanding. He had injured his head in an earlier shipboard accident and was wearing a head bandage, which his captors took as a badge of chiefly rank.

Today a new wave of 21st century eco-tourism explorers is rediscovering Hokianga through a new venture called Footprints Waipoua, supported by the Copthorne Hotel in Omapere.

Visiting Te Koutu I learn of local people who have achieved prominence, such as actor Rawiri Parawene and renowned artist Ralph Hotere.

The Koutu Boulders are among the world's largest spherical concretions with circumferences of up to 14 metres. Like the more famous Moeraki Boulders, they have built up around a central bone or piece of fossilised wood in a continual coating process rather like the production of a chocolate peanut.

At Horeke on the south shore, New Zealand's first post office and first pub were built in the 1830's. The tiny port was the centre of a thriving shipbuilding industry using timber from Webster's Mill up the Horeke Stream.

Today the fascinating Wairere Boulders Walkway can be enjoyed by visitors to the area. Felix and Rita Schaad have enhanced the valley over 25 years with a picturesque trail over bridges and boardwalks.

Visitors can view giant boulders that are a geological wonder, with symmetrical fluting down their sides due to soil acidity and chemical leaching in the ancient kauri forest.

A short distance from Horeke is the site of the Mangungu Wesleyan Mission Station. The picturesque main building still stands on a prominence overlooking the upper harbour. It was the scene of the largest gathering of 72 Maori chiefs to sign the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840.

Kokukohu provides a chance to browse through art and craft galleries. In the early days 5000 men worked in the kauri timber trade and shipbuilding yards here. The largest Masonic Lodge building in the country still survives here.

Several original villas on the foreshore still have the timber mill brand marks on their lining boards - some are marked 1838.

The Waterline Cafe is built on poles over the water offering great views and outstanding coffee.

My final stop is the important ferry town of Rawene. It features a collection of pretty colonial buildings clustered around the ferry terminal. Clendon House is an outstanding example of Victorian architecture and well worth a visit.

The entire Hokianga Harbour has a palpable feeling of peace and tranquillity. There is a sense that I have been transported back to a simpler time, to a quiet oasis of flax groves, cabbage trees and tidal estuaries.

That's a very good reason to visit the Hokianga.

FACT FILE

The Footprints Waipoua day experience has hotel pickups in Paihia. The fare includes coach transport from your Bay of Islands hotel and a Tane Mahuta encounter with a local guide.

Where to stay: Copthorne Hotel & Resort, Hokianga.

Paul Rush travelled to the Hokianga courtesy of Kings Tours and Footprints Waipoua.

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